March 29, 2013

UPDATED: “History had me glued to my seat…”

Ms. Claudette Colvin speaks at Newark's Abyssinian Baptist Church
Ms. Claudette Colvin had more than 200 assembled activists stuck to their seats as she shared the story of her 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus. As a fifteen-year-old youngster who'd heard Black History Week presentations in her high school, she felt the spirit of Harriet Tubman "like a hand on my shoulder forcing me to remain seated," when the driver instructed her and three other students to move so a young white woman could have a seat alone on two benches.

After her arrest, Miss Colvin became active in the Montgomery NAACP Youth Council organized by Mrs. Rosa Parks, so she had multiple sources of inspiration, though she was taken off the bus and busted some nine months before Mrs. Parks herself was arrested.  
MS. Colvin with POP members Aminifu Williams and Sharon Hand
"Mrs. Parks was our Esther," Miss Colvin suggested, explaining the difference between her own arrest that became part of a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court and ended segregation on public transit in the US and that of Rosa Parks, which became the basis of the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. Esther, from the Bible, she explained had a variety of unique gifts that allowed her to fight in ways unavailable to other Hebrews in ancient Persia.

Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, also spoke about these two different direction in the people's struggle, though matter-of-factly. 

"Inside and outside," Larry said. "Though legal, court battles are less exciting than taking to the streets and marching, they each complimented one another, and the struggle against segregation on Montgomery buses could not have been won without both components."
Larry Hamm, Newark City Councilman Ras Baraka, NJ Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka & Claudette Colvin before the evening program
Hamm expanded on this, speaking about POP's 381 days of struggle for Peace, Jobs & Justice this past year. We'd mounted daily picketlines, in the heat of summer and the snows of winter, under all weather conditions, demanding a National Jobs Program; the End to Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; preservation of Workers' Rights and Collective Bargaining; a Moratorium on Foreclosures; the End to Privatization Schemes and other Attacks on Public Education; a National Healthcare Program; Affordable College Education. 

Why 381 days? Because the People's Organization for Progress took our cue from the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, and our goal was to keep our Campaign for Peace, Jobs & Justice running at least that long. In the course of this campaign POP built a coalition of nearly two hundred labor, grassroots, community, and religious organizations, and, as Chairman Hamm noted, the campaign is still active with weekly demonstrations and other activities.
New Jersey State Assemblyman Thomas Giblin
As Assemblyman, and President of the Essex County Central Labor Council, Tommy Giblin noted, this "was one heck of an impressive achievement." Giblin, who spoke as a member of the NJ Assembly for Essex County, was by no means the only elected official present. Municipalities from all over northern New Jersey sent proclamations honoring Ms. Colvin. From Elizabeth to Paterson, from Montclair to Irvington; Essex County, Union County, Passaic County, nearly every elected official wanted to be part of this event. Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith included the Key to the City with the proclamation he presented to Ms. Colvin. Noteworthy, and somewhat perplexing, was the slim participation of Newark elected officials. South Ward council member (and mayoral candidate) Ras Baraka may have been the only local municipal elected official in attendance. 
Approximately 200 community residents and other activists filled the pews of Newark's Abyssinian Baptist Church.
As we honor Ms. Colvin and share the lessons of her life, as well as this successful forum, it is important to remember that Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanette Reese were also plaintiffs in the case Attorney Fred Gray brought before the US Supreme Court, ending segregation on public transportation across the country. But perhaps more important in this era when Mrs. Parks' memory is applauded and lionized, when a statue of her likeness stands in the Capitol Rotunda, is that Rosa Parks herself was for many years the "forgotten woman of the Montgomery Boycott."  In 1960, she was living in Detroit where she'd been forced to move after the successful struggle in Montgomery. Ill, unemployed, poverty-stricken and ignored by the Montgomery Improvement Association and NAACP alike, it was only through the efforts of the militant United Autoworkers NAACP branch at the Ford River Rouge plant that she received support, and eventually a staff job with the newly-elected Congressman John Conyers.

[UPDATE: Click on the link Claudette Colvin to view over two hours of video of the entire event, including Ms. Colvin's presentation, Thursday evening, March 28 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Out thanks to WBAI videographer Fred Nguyen]


Jon Levine said...

Fire on the Mountain readers who'd like to see the full set of photos from this event can click POP honors Ms. Claudette Colvin.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a fabulous event! Were there a lot of young people there? Hopefully, history will now help "unglue" the next generation from their seats, and to propel them to stand up and continue the unfinished march toward racial equality.

Anonymous said...

April 4, 2013 The People’s Organization For Progress rally & march commemorate the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King with Claudette Colvin present was historic.